300 B- POLEVOI
could be distinguished amidst the steady roar of artillery.
The squadrons were ordered to be in "readiness No. 2".
That meant that the airmen were to be in their cockpits
so as to take off as soon as the first rocket shot into the
air. The planes were wheeled to the edge of a birch wood
and camouflaged with tree branches. The cool, raw air of
the wood had a mushroomy fragrance, and the mosqui-
toes, whose buzzing was drowned by the roar of battle,
furiously attacked the faces, necks and hands of the air-
Meresyev took off his helmet and, lazily waving the
mosquitoes away, sat deep in thought, enjoying the pun-
gent morning fragrance of the wood. In the next caponier
stood the plane of his follower. Every now and again
Petrov got up from the seat of his cockpit and even stood
on it to look in the direction in which the battle was
raging, or to follow the passing bombers with his eyes.
He was eager to go into the air to meet a real foe for the
first time in his life, to direct his tracer bullets not at a
wind-inflated sleeve hauled by an "R-5", but a real, live,
agile enemy plane in which, perhaps, like a snail in its
shell, sat the fellow whose bomb had killed that slim,
pretty girl whom he now thought of as having seen in a
Meresyev watched his restless follower and thought to
himself: "We are about the same age. He is nineteen and
I am twenty-three. What does a difference of three or
four years signify for a man?" But by the side of his
follower he felt like an experienced, staid and tired old
man. Just now Petrov was wriggling about in his cockpit,
rubbing his hands, laughing and shouting something at
the passing Soviet planes, while he, Alexei, had stretched
himself out comfortably in his seat. He was calm. He had
no feet, it was immensely more difficult for him to fly
than for any other airman in the world, but even that
did not stir him. He was firmly convinced of his skill and
he trusted his mutilated legs.
The wing remained in "readiness No. 2" until evening.
For some reason it was kept in reserve. Evidently they
did not want to disclose its position prematurely.
The dugouts assigned to the wing as their sleeping
quarters ha4 been built by Germans who had held this